UUism as an ethnic religion

I heard Mark Morrison-Reed at Arlington Street Church this last week. His sermon was titled "The Perversity of Diversity" and one of his points was that Unitarian Universalism is more an ethnic religion that we recognize.

I think that we know this already; we, especially the Unitarians, are well aware of our New England roots, a heritage we are both proud of and embarrassed by.

On the other hand, we are clearly an ethnic religion with multi-cultural ambitions.

I have some questions to which someone might have answers.

Is there a Yankee diaspora? As the population of the US moved West, did New England Yankees create small outposts of New English Yankee culture across the country? Was the spread of Unitarianism tied to these circles? Anecdotal evidence of some of the largest and most established Unitarian churches in the Midwest point to that pattern.

When was the tipping point, if there was one, when Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest, South and West, ceased to be Yankee religion in a strange land? What percentage of non-New England UU congregations are of a different ethnic background than Yankee, or don't have New England connections?

If we are a Yankee religion by heritage and habit (by DNA as is now said), what was the process of that no longer defining us in the present? In other words, if we are less Yankee than we used to be, then we have already been in a process of becoming more multi-cultural. How did that work? What can we learn from it?

A final set of questions, regarding the larger context.

One of the features of the rise of conservative hegemony in the USA has been the shift in the relative power of groups within the elite. New England and New York capitalists used to be dominant, but that power has shifted West and South, especially due to the economic power of the oil industry.

The political power of New England within the US has been declining. That quintessential New England Republican is a vanishing breed. New Englanders get nominated for US President, but have not won since the Irish Catholic Democrat Kennedy. A New Englander, but not a Yankee.

Meanwhile, within Unitarian Universalism, Republicans are getting rarer. In much of the country, the UU congregation is unabashedly Democratic, or to the left of that. Those to the right are just as likely to be libertarian rather than traditional moderate Republicans.

All my questions center around this larger historical trend: what happens to a New England Yankee, elite religion as the New England elite loses political, economic and social power in the country as a whole?
Arlington Street Church, Boston: A beautiful reminder of days gone by.


  1. I suspect the shift is one generation after the formation of fellowships and new congregations in post-WWII college towns, when you would have had a professional class in those towns that had been formed more by the new state research universities and military industrial complex rather than the traditional Yankee colleges and universities.

  2. One marker of de-Yankification that is seldom noted is the increased presence of Jews in UU congregations. This would be an interesting subject to study in its geographic, ideological, and political dimensions.

  3. Chris, so one factor is the emergence of a counter intellectual elite based on state universities. I bet that this would match up with the rise of humanism in the midwest as a counter theology to Harvard liberal Christianity. What would happen in these non-New England congregations when the science/technology oriented lay leadership encountered their Unitarian minister fresh from Harvard Divinity school?

    Dan, one place to look would be the historic changes in the rate of intermarriage among Jews in the USA. Another data point, when did Ann Landers start recommending Unitarian ministers as the go-to clergy for interfaith marriages?

  4. Random but peripherally germane remark: many of us thought the UUA should have moved its HQ out of Boston when it sold the Beacon Street buildings. HQ should be in one of the parts of the South or Midwest where we are a dynamic and growing.

  5. Kate Rohde10:54 PM

    During my ministry I began to notice the ethnic aspects of UUism. I grew up in the west but was mainly chosen by churches that were neither New England nor west coast. I was not Yankee enough for New England, but I found that most of the congregations I served were not as ethnically diverse as the white population that mostly surrounded them. The cultural norms within the churches tended to be at odds with people brought up ethnically Jewish, Italian, Greek, etc. I remember one church in which I served as an RE minister in which there was only one brunette in the entire hundred or so children in the program. Indeed, in several churches, people labelled "troublemakers" (quietly, of course) were often from non-Northern European backgrounds. It wasn't a conscious thing, I think, but rather that we do inherit an ethnic culture that we are often completely unaware of and impute individual personality differences to people that are actually ethnic difference. In other words, people were outsiders not because of their membership in an ethnic group, but because of an unrecognized culture clash. (There were also huge, unrecognized, regional cultures and differences that caused problems between ministers who came from another region and churches with strong regional identities.) I don't know to what extent another generation has homogenized culture more and made this less of an issue, but perhaps not as much as we might think. The individualistic, liberal, professional, culture which Jonathan Haidt identifies in his work as being unique in its values and transgressing values held by most people in the country and in the world, holds another clue to a lack of ethnic diversity.

  6. Yes there was a Yankee diaspora. American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodward has a lot to say about that. It is a fascinating book and probably would add to this discussion in several ways.

    I agree that the college town/humanist and Jewish influxes into Unitarianism enriched us a lot, and began to break the New England framework into which we were born. (I'll say that the first person who told me about Unitarianism said it was one step further away from Conservative Judaism than was Reform Judaism - DC in the 1960s)

  7. Interesting. Though as a livelong midwesterner I'm far from an expert on Yankee culture, based on my understanding I think that that culture is still part of our DNA.

    The positive aspects of that culture include I think a commitment to social justice and reform that dates back to the abolitionists and progressives if not earlier, and generally an ethic of honesty and fairness. The negatives include an emotional reserve, and overly intellectual approach to religion/church structure.

    In response Chris Walton, no doubt the culture of a Midwestern college town differs from Cambridge or New Haven in some ways but I also think there's a fair amount of cross-pollination. At least in the town I live (Ann Arbor) there are a lot of folks who are from or were educated in New England, and I think a significant percentage of our early clergy and memnbership had New England roots.

  8. I think the tipping point for the end of Yankee dominance occurred with the fairly modest reaction to publication of the Humnist Manifesto in 1933. It seems tome that this trend began with the Western Radicals (predominantly of the Yankee diaspora), who began challenging the theology of the Boston elite shortly after arriving "out west" in places like Illinois and Wisconsin in the mid-nineteenth century


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